Why are People Perennially Surprised By Internet Misogyny?

A rather hilarious stock photo of a woman seated at a computer with post-it notes all over the wall of her office.

Readers, I have a confession: I was tempted to cut and paste this piece, since I’m pretty sure I’ve written it before. I realized that my desire to cut and paste was kind of an indicator of how endlessly circular this topic is, though. Here’s how the formula goes:

1. Woman, or person read as woman, writes a piece about how hostile the internet is to women. The piece often includes interviews and testimonials from women with concrete examples of the kind of hostility under discussion. We’re not talking saying mean things on the playground, but rape and death threats, hounding abuse campaigns, hacking of websites, forcible outings, doxxing, and other delightful things.

2. Other women, and GSMs in general, follow up the piece with their own pieces on the same subject, amplifying the message, talking about their experiences in hostile online environments, and basically backing up the original story: yes, the internet is hostile to people it perceives as women. Some women consider it to be a dangerous place and take protective measures for their basic safety because they have concrete evidence that their safety shouldn’t be assumed.

3. Often, this gets picked up in the media. Some of the same women discussing safety issues are talking on larger media platforms, while some others are going into retreat, often because they’ve been threatened for speaking openly about online safety issues for women. Media outlets are delighted by these deep, personal, thinky pieces about what it’s like to be a woman online.

4. Everyone acts shocked, simply shocked, that there are misogynists online. There’s a big old conversation and much discussion about how to combat this terrible social evil and make the internet a safer place for women and girls, a place where women aren’t in danger of being outed, threatened, having their personal information widely distributed to the public.

5. Three weeks later, everyone has forgotten, and the issue goes into stasis again until the next piece about how dangerous the internet is for women is written, when the conversation cycles back to the beginning.

I really don’t know how many times people need to say this before the message will sink through: the internet is a dangerous place for women. It’s especially dangerous for women living at the intersections of multiple marginalisations. Take a look at the mentions of active Black women online, like Mikki Kendall, who is deluged in a tide of racist misogynistic vitriol on a daily basis, much of it deliberately aimed at her Twitter mentions to be sure she’ll see it (until she has a chance to block the source, and these people jump easily from one sock puppet to another). Just by opening her mouth online on any topic, whether it’s how to roast a chicken or the treatment of Black children in the justice system, she knows that she’s in for a stream of hatred.

Fat women are called ‘stupid fat cunts’ and receive charming notices on how unfuckable and gross they are. Disabled women are called ‘retards’ and informed that they should shut up. Low-income women are hounded for not being poor enough, for not performing poverty to the satisfaction of observers, for sucking up welfare money and using it on internet access. Religious women are told they’re stupid and brainwashed by their own religious faith, unable to make decisions for themselves about issues like covering or following other religious laws. Trans women are hounded and forcibly outed, in some cases committing suicide due to the hostility they encounter online.

This is just the tip of the iceberg, though. All women, and people generally read as women whether or not we are, are constantly subjected to vicious, horrific, terrifying abuse online. It drives some women underground; some shift through multiple identities in an attempt to maintain their online networks and communities, while others just vanish one day, never to return. I worry about those women–have they gone deep, deep underground with plans to return some day? Did they commit suicide? Are they active under some other name and a new identity that can’t be linked with the old one in any way, shape, or form? Who did they become, and where are they going?

Until people understand that the internet is a hostile place for women and this is a problem that is not going to go away until people are ready to address it, this cycle is going to keep happening. Detailed outline of the abuse women endure, shock and surprise, pledge to do better, end of the discussion, loop back to the beginning. Why is the internet a hostile place for women? Because this is a misogynistic and crappy culture filled with terrible people who do terrible things.

But it doesn’t have to be that way. In fact, it shouldn’t be that way, and we have the option of making it not that way, if we want to try. Do we? Do we want to work on actually making the internet a friendly place for women? Then we need to take responsibility for working to actively speak out when we see women being abused. We need to speak in solidarity with women who identify problems, and we need to speak up when we’re in spaces where women are being shouted down. Men have a power women don’t have, the ability to enter certain spaces that do not welcome women or their voices, and those spaces are the places where these conversations should be taking place.

This is a fight that needs to be taken to the men who are making the internet unsafe, not to the women who are fighting to make it safer.